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Ted Newsom: My Top 10 Hammer Films… and Why

There’s no need to praise Hammer Films. Been done. The explanation of why is something personal. It’s hard to explain to a generation raised on DVDs, and sad they have nothing exactly like the sacred experience called “Going to the Movies.” It has only the vaguest connection to the current practice of “Watching a Video.” It is like the devout acolyte trying to explain to the novice why a haj to Mecca is unique, why bathing in the Ganges is a blessed event, why walking the hills of the Holy Land is different from exploring a neat vacant lot.

You made the effort to take the pilgrimage, whether to an elaborate palace in the nearest metropolitan area, or a smaller place of worship within walking distance. After staring awestruck at the wonders to come — the forecourt posters for today’s show, and those which were “Coming Next Wednesday” — you tithed the high priest or priestess in the box office and entered. The emotional journey began with subtle familiarity, a mesmeric sense of anticipation: popcorn and butter in the air, a whiff of chocolate, the hypnotic clatter of ice cubes in cups, rustling of coins, low chatter of your fellow devotees.

The grand hall could be elaborate as the Vatican, with a domed sky of pretend stars and intricate carved rococo designs, or as simple as a seedy empty hall with sticky cement floors and tattered upholstery. That did not matter to the Devoted. It was not the size of the cathedral, it was the trance which was important. It began with multicolored random lights dancing in slow patterns on the curtains. The huge curtains parted with a fanfare and your eyes widened. As in the forecourt, there followed a tease of other infinite wonders to come: cowboys, funny men, scenic glories, fantasies. Then the true hypnotic enchantment began. Another world beckoned and absorbed you and everyone around you. You were collectively transported to a dreamland where other people did the actions you hoped you would in that situation, where evil took on easy-to-understand forms, and happiness was underlined by theme music. You shared this common dream emotionally, viscerally, in detail, the same images registering in all of your brains.

We all experienced the same revelations and inspiration as we absorbed the films, but the genuine magic spell of “Going to the Movies” included When and Where – not just What. I’ve listed these ten films not in order of creation, but in order of their effect on me — when and where I saw them. The spiritual effect, the gut effect, the embedded memories anchor us not just in the fantasy worlds we saw but were milestones in our own lives.

And even television– then had a narrow and specific magic. Big cities may have had six or seven channels; in Portland, we had four. Smaller towns might have one. You hoped for good reception, hopefully scanned the upcoming TV Guide like a rabbi poring over the Torah, for a heads-up on anything promising. If a movie ran, you might not get another chance to see it for a year, or ever. Again, you had to seek out the experience. You negotiated, wheedled, went to extremes (or at least, extremes for a kid.) If I promise to finish my homework early Sunday night, can I watch at least the first half of I Bury the Living (1958) at nine, even though it’s a school night? If I take a nap earlier in the day, can I stay up to watch something called Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) at one in the morning?

Editor’s Note: Please note that, in the titles, the films are dated by the year Ted saw them – not their original year of release.

THE CREEPING UNKNOWN [THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT] (1960)

For inexplicable reasons, my local independent station, KPTV, decided to broadcast a science fiction film weekly at mid-morning during school summer vacation. Oh, man, did we kids agree with that choice! Man Beast (1956), Monster from Green Hell (1957), Invaders from Mars (1953_ … then came a movie that seemed like a cop show, with something awful and mysterious happening. I missed the title, but the story held me — eight years old, riveted. Three things stood out. A nervous discussion between our hero scientist and the main cop over the fingerprints of the poor guy who was sick from going into space, interrupted by a perfectly-timed phone call.

“But these prints aren’t even–”

Ring, ring.

“– human…”

Wow. Then there was the silent footage of Something Wrong happening inside that rocket. Those guys are in trouble. They’re astronauts, good guys– what’s happening? I can’t see. Are they okay? Wait! Where’d they go? And the last shot, the head guy walking away through the night, lit only by streetlights– and launching another rocket. (Imagine– the movie was only five years old then!)

ENEMY FROM SPACE (1961)

The KPTV morning movie had been Killers from Space (1954), and same that afternoon, the local CBS affiliate KOIN offered something with a similar title. We kids spent the afternoon at my grandma’s, who luckily was indulgent about what she allowed on her TV. No cave filled with giant bugs or bug-eyed aliens in leotards in this one: just something Wicked. There were rockets again– god, it’s too bad kids nowadays can’t understand how exciting rockets were then!– and a big, scary factory. Something ugly on people’s faces, which made them act bad… a guy who got covered in black poison and died with smoke coming off of him like an overcooked hamburger… and a big dome– just like those huge oil and gas tanks I’d seen– with a giant black slop monster inside waiting to get out. The end credits said this was something called “A Hammer Film,” and acknowledged the Shell Essex Refinery. I never trusted Shell stations after that.

HORROR OF DRACULA (1962)

I was a smart monster kid, so I thought. I’d watched Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) way back in kindergarten, all of two years before. I drew monsters– the square head guy, fuzzy faced Wolfman, and scary Dracula in his neat black cape. And I had a few Topps bubble gum cards– not nearly enough– one of which had a lady with fangs about to bite a guy. That was promisingly erotic– though I didn’t know what that even meant yet. Wow. I showed that card to the nurse when I had my tonsils out and she was impressed. And I got the Aurora plastic kit when it first came out, with a great James Bama painting on the box. So when I saw the poster in the small forecourt of the Alberta Theater with the staring, one-eyed face of a fanged monster and a printed blurb which read “…and Christopher Lee as Dracula,” I said to someone, “That’s stupid. Everybody knows the real Dracula is Bella LaGohsee.” Boy, was I wrong… My sisters and I sat through a quadruple bill that Sunday matinée: Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Curse of the Undead (1959), Head of a Tyrant [1959] (very little head, a lot of Hercules costumes)… and Horror of Dracula. This was even before the Seven Arts double-bill re-release. Neighborhood theaters booked five-year-old films because they were cheap.

Indelible. That iconic close-up of the blood-smeared monster bursting into the library. The scary crypt. The woman turning into an old lady when the guy drove a bloody stake into her heaving bosom! The end– oh, no, Dracula’s going to bite him! It’s all over, the bad guy’s going to win! No, wait– the curtains! He doesn’t like sunlight. Holy moly! He turned to ASHES!!! And boy is he screaming! Wow! The poster for the other film said, “The Curse of Frankenstein will haunt you forever!” Truer hyperbole was never written– except I’d substitute the word “Hammer.”

THE MUMMY (1963)

By the age of nine or 10, the two miles from home to the Alberta or the nearby 30th Avenue was within my itinerary nearly every week. In cold retrospect, both theaters were fleapits, but lord did they offer magic. Isle of the Dead [1945] (then nearly 20 years old!), Satellite in the Sky (1956), House of Wax (1953), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), (in Sepiatone– what a weird thing.), Teenage Frankenstein (1957), Circus of Horrors (1960), Konga (1961), The Cyclops (1957), Mysterious Island (1961), It Came from Outer Space (1953), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Tingler (1957), The Mask (1961), Dinosaurus! (1960), Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Tales of Terror (1962). One Saturday afternoon I exchanged summer sun for a cold English climate and Egyptian heat. It was those same two guys from the other movies, but this was a sad one. You felt sorry for the mud-caked mummy– and scared! He tore iron bars apart just like Superman! He loved the girl or something– I wasn’t clear on that part. But he rose out of the swamp just like the Mudman in the Tales from the Tomb comic book!

The long walk back home, with late afternoon sunshine contrasting the Technicolor gloom I’d just experienced, made me sad and thoughtful. Okay, the mummy strangled people, and you probably couldn’t run from him because he was fast and strong and big, but maybe he wasn’t all bad. It was the guy in the red hat who made him do bad things. Still, I knew that Mummy was not about to be my friend. The other interesting thing was the beautiful mummification ritual. Wow– the princess was naked, and you could almost see her. This was suddenly a very interesting concept.

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970)

I had enthusiastically abandoned my virginity to a wonderful, buxom, brown-eyed redhead named Sally the night we saw Hell in the Pacific in 1968 (I’d won free tickets!). I had just turned 16, and she was an older woman– 17! Lord, was I ever in love. My first date, my first kiss (a lot of them!) and then all glorious day with her afterward, alone at her house. To hell with school! My siblings and I moved from Portland to California for two years, but when we returned, I needed so much to see Sally again. When we were driving around, she sang “You Made Me So Very Happy” acapella– she had a lovely voice, and that song conjured our first time together (that, and “’Morning, Girl.” Oh, boy.) She had a used Kharmann Ghia, and I had about three dollars. If she hid in the back behind the seat, we could sneak into the drive-in and only pay one admission. And I was suave and sophisticated enough to bring a bottle of orange juice spiked with some of my dad’s vodka. The sweet music of James Bernard was so romantic. The movie? Heck, I’d seen it at the same drive-in the week before– but not as memorably! The glimpses of bosom on the screen were nothing compared to what I saw and worshiped in that cramped Karmann Ghia. (Like the grand palaces and the ratty ‘nabes, drive-ins were sacred places, too. Although they tended to be less formally dogmatic and more like open-air incarnations of a Babylonian goddess worship temple or pagan fertility rites. If you know what I mean.)

The same drive-in was the site of seeing very little of Silent Running (1972) with Lucy two years later. School had just ended for the summer; I had about two weeks before I’d enter the Army. I had a huge, honkin’ gas-sucking ’64 Chevy Impala, and I was so crazy about Lucy: half-Japanese, smart, funny, with a two-year-old boy named Roger Louie and the most beautiful smile! And the backseat was so much roomier! The Joan Baez songs were our theme music for our love scene. They still make me cry; I wonder if Lucy remembers them? I wonder if she’s happy?

That drive-in is no longer there. Nor, it seems, are many others, anywhere.

SCARS OF DRACULA (1974)

I really hated the Army. Sure, serving in a hospital in Germany was a breeze compared to getting your head shot off in Vietnam, but being away from home and friends, the regimentation, the frustration of not being able to get into some job I wanted– journalism, television, making training films, stage shows, all of which were close at hand, if only, IF ONLY they’d let me out of the medical unit!– it confused my compass. I drank, I did a lot (a lot!) of drugs, I chased and caught women. Once in a while I’d seek out movies in a local revival theater– Duck Soup (1933), Brides of Dracula (1960), Earthquake [1974] (in Sensuround!), and Dracula Jagt Mini-Madchen (1972), aka Dracula AD 1972. There were occasional, wonderful interruptions, like living with Cilla and loving her a lot. We nearly got married– and when we flew to New York so I could meet her folks, I bought Super 8mm versions of Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) and a color Revenge of Frankenstein –for which I was reprimanded sternly by her dad for wasting my money when patriotic Israeli children save their pennies to buy bullets for the Army. When I suggested that Moishe Dayan had a nice house on the hill courtesy of those kids’ milk money, it went over like a lead blintz.

When we returned to our little one-bedroom basement apartment in Heidelberg, I still had my ten-minute Americom 8mm excerpt of Horror of Dracula (1958) and told Cilla I could probably cut those scenes together with TTBOD and shoot new scenes to make a new film story. She encouraged me to offer the idea to the company who made the movies, Hammer. It was a tempting idea, but who was I? A 20-year-old punk kid in the Army.

We broke up. I was devastated. So was she. I moved into a tiny studio apartment but occasionally hung out at the barracks, because they had a little black and white TV which could sometimes get reception from the Armed Forces TV broadcast out of Ramstein. (It was no fun watching TV in German.) And one night they showed a movie I had never seen, Scars of Dracula. Well, I knew the story, because my high school friend Henry had the oversexed paperback tie-in, with one memorable description of a dumb young visitor to the castle bedding a vampire woman and entering her “to the core.” Whoa. The core! There were, however, no cores on display in the movie, and even had there been, I couldn’t have seen them. On that snow-filled, static-clogged screen I could see just enough to know I liked it. If you squinted, you could almost make out the ominous castle, and Dracula’s dark, caped figure. The music was great– just like that first one I ever heard way back when! There was that familiar, scary three-note signature theme– and another lush, sweet-sad romantic theme swooping up in the end credits.

TO THE DEVIL, A DAUGHTER (1976)

The three Army years were mercifully coming to an end. I wanted to visit England while I was in Europe. I may never get another chance. When I learned that Hammer was making a new movie with Christopher Lee, I took a chance, wrote an article proposal to the editor of Stars & Stripes, the military newspaper– and actually got my first assignment, to write an on-set story about the making of To the Devil, A Daughter! London, at least, had signs and billboards in English. I was very fond of a girl named Thora, who had tended bar at the NCO club back in Heidelberg. She graciously lent me her flat, and (major disappointment) did not want to be in love or even go through the physical-pretend motions. Drat! Anyway, I read the Dennis Wheatley book and coordinated with a real, honest-to-God publicity guy for Hammer, Mike Russell. He said Christopher Lee was already finished and had gone to Jamaica to golf. Oh. Mmm. But the big star, Richard Widmark, was still working. “Richard Widmark? “ I asked. “Who’s he playing?” “Well, the American, of course,” Russell answered. There was no American in the novel. And I did take a trip to Wardour Street and saw the building with the impressive name on the edifice: Hammer House. But I never got to the set. Why bother? For Richard Widmark?

I saw the movie after I returned to the States. It was properly creepy, with some nice nudity courtesy of a luscious young Natassia Kinski, good, layered villainy by Lee, and a cringe-worthy scene where a woman is forced to give explosive and deadly birth with her legs tied together. Whew, nasty! It would have been so much more enjoyable if I’d been there to see it in person. Not the birth, the making of the movie.

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1976)

I was in my first year in college at Portland State University, thanks to the GI Bill. For my class project (my teacher was the daughter of Eugene Lourie. Wow, in Portland, yet!) I did an 8mm portmanteau movie which finally allowed me to use that old Americom 8mm footage– I cut out Peter Cushing and destroyed Dracula myself! My roommate Henry and I journeyed by bus to watch Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) in a revival at the Bagdad (an old fashioned movie palace seen in the film What the Bleep Do We Know), and Horror of Dracula at a three-movie midnight show in a downtown three-screen crackerbox (it still worked with an audience– even though it wasn’t over until near dawn.) And I shot a vampire movie with a new friend, Matt. He could recite Dracula dialogue by heart, too. And I got to wear the neatest black cape AND bite the girl. All right.

The oldest building of PSU, Lincoln Hall, had been the high school my dad attended. The film department showed free movies every Friday in the basement auditorium, usually stuff by Orson Welles or Eisenstein. One night they showed Curse of the Werewolf. I’d seen it when I was a kid, but this time it really struck me as an epic in the true sense– a tale stretching over two generations, something incalculably sad. Oh, the scary scenes were still terrific– the fanged child at his barred window, his trance-frozen eyes wide in blood lust– the attack on the prostitute, and then on the old drunk in the jail, with the red-eyed wolf-man lunging at the camera. But the ending is just so sad, so doomed. For no good reason except the circumstance of his birth, Leon is chased by the mob, and in the end, shot by his own foster father. All he wanted was the love of that one, sweet, tender woman. With that, everything would have been fine. Like all else in his cursed life, it ended badly. It was cold, I remember, when I walked through downtown Portland to the bus stop to go home that Friday night. Cold, windy, and lonely.

SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1978)

In California, married to a girl I knew since high school, I began writing professionally, dribs and drabs at first, plus working in a movie house and going to school. We watched horror movies on our Halloween wedding night, including Horror of Dracula. By then I could recite the dialogue by heart. Shortly after we were married, something called Count Dracula and his Vampire Bride came out. The artwork was very familiar– a direct steal from the old 1962 Dell Comics cover and a subsequent jigsaw puzzle, with the girl’s face replaced by one from the House of Dark Shadows one-sheet. The company name Hammer was nowhere on the ad– due, I imagine, to the fact that “Dynamite Releasing” was Max Rosenberg, the business half of Amicus Films– who always hated Hammer and envied it for its success. He’d bought the rights to two unreleased Hammer movies– this one, and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires— and sent them out in potted form. Both films were several years old by 1978, yet unreleased in the US. The Hammer glory period had passed.

Still, it was nostalgic to see Peter Cushing battling Christopher Lee. It’s actually a good mystery/spy plot– if you removed Dracula from the title. Otherwise, all the characters look like morons for not catching on far earlier. Christopher Lee was actually given some good dialogue and an ever so slightly layered role– more than the usual lurking. He always described this Dracula as “a cross between Howard Hughes and Dr. No”… like that was a bad thing…

NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER (2006)

I ended up making lots of clip-show documentaries– new movies from old– and wanted to finish with one good one in 1993. That resulted in my teaming Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for their last time to co-narrate Flesh & Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror, which was broadcast on the BBC the week Cushing died in 1994. Matt went over with me– it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, truly. In the process of making the documentary, I interviewed many of those involved in the films– Val Guest, who directed those first two Hammer sci-fi movies I ever saw, Michael Carreras, the producer of many of them, Jimmy Sangster, who wrote just as many, and most especially James Bernard, who had composed the wonderful music for them. I used that sweet, triumphant end music from Taste the Blood of Dracula to end my show on a glorious up-note of happy finality.

I got divorced, went through three intense love affairs, wrote, made movies, and the world changed around me. Someone invented home video, and it was everywhere. Someone else trumped that with DVD. The Internet sprang up. And Cilla got back in touch with me… after 34 years. How odd and wonderful the way life works, sometimes.
When I came around to re-edit the documentary, I watched a 1960 suspense film the company had made called Never Take Sweets from a Stranger, courtesy of Joe Dante, who had a real 35mm print. Having read about the film for years, I was happily surprised it was as good as reported. A straight drama about child molestation and the ramifications such charges can bring upon children, parents and a whole town, it was badly critiqued when it was released in England. Critics called it exploitative of the material, which it certainly is not. Had this been made in exactly the same way by, say, the Boulting Brothers, it would have been heralded as an art-house success. Instead, its failure sent Hammer’s company direction right back to horror and exploitation movies.

Had this excellent movie been the triumph it deserved to be, Hammer Films’ history during the 1960s and 70s may well have been quite different, the way Michael Carreras had envisioned: quality mainstream films of all sorts, from drama to comedy, tough cop stories to big-scale adventure.

But then, if that had happened… I would not have had the life I did.

About Ted Newsom

Ted Newsom is a writer, actor and filmmaker whose works range from big budget (the original screenplay for Spider-Man in 1985) to micro-budget (he starred as twin maniacs in Ron Ford’s thriller Dead Season.). Along the way he wrote and directed the TV series 100 Years of Horror, the BBC production Flesh & Blood, the Hammer Heritage of Horror, and the award-nominated all-star sci-fi spoof The Naked Monster. Currently he and Brinke Stevens are taking meetings about the Sinbad script they wrote with Ray Harryhausen—oh, and writing for Diabolique, of course.

One comment

  1. I enjoyed this piece as it wasn’t a simple statement of each movie, it showed the movie as an emotional marker/connection place in time.

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